Published On Thu Nov 12 2009
MONTREAL– First, a Muslim girl was barred from a soccer match for wearing a hijab. Then, five Muslim girls were ejected from a tae kwon do tournament for the same reason.
It was 2007, at a time when Quebecers were preoccupied with how far they should go to "accommodate" the religious and cultural differences of immigrants in a secular and multicultural society.
While soccer and martial arts officials cited safety concerns, many called the ejections racist, and the incidents became part of the larger controversy. Fast forward two years, and industrial designer Elham Seyed Javad has taken up the cause.
"I was so distressed when I learned about it," Seyed Javad said. "Your beliefs shouldn't prevent you from playing sports." So, the 26-year-old University of Montreal graduate designed a sleek sports hijab, which fits tightly around the head and is part of a sports shirt underneath.
They were tested by some Muslim athletes at a martial arts tournament last weekend and passed with flying colours, Seyed Javad said. Her innovation comes as the question of "reasonable accommodation" on the integration of immigrants into society is surging back into the public domain.
An Angus Reid Strategies poll from last month suggests the vast majority of Quebecers think there is too much accommodation going on. Seventy-six per cent say the wearing of religious symbols in school should be barred. And yet "accommodations" continue under the radar.
For example, at the all-girls public high school École Marguerite-De Lajemmerais in east Montreal, where all students must wear a uniform, the school decided to provide a hijab, complete with the school's logo stitched into the fabric.
Montreal's French school board said it was looking to see if other schools were doing the same. "We find it worrying," said Alain Perron, spokesperson for the Commission scolaire de Montréal.
The debate over "reasonable accommodation" exploded in 2007 when numerous reports came to light of religious minorities making requests ranging from opting out of music classes to obscuring a fitness club's windows to hide the scantily-clad women inside.
Then the small town of Hérouxville stirred things up by publishing a "code" for new immigrants, reminding them that stoning or burning women was prohibited, and that veils weren't welcome, except on Halloween.
The problem of headscarves in sports is that sometimes the ends come untucked, even though athletes try to pin them inside a shirt.
Seyed Javad, who is Muslim but doesn't wear a hijab herself, emphasizes that her "Resport" is more than a hijab. It can be used by anyone, male or female, who needs to keep their hair in check during their activities.
"Even men in American football," she explained. "They sometimes have long hair."
The Resport is being shopped around to manufacturers by Univalor, which commercializes University of Montreal inventions. It "helps to integrate, rather than exclude certain communities in society," Seyed Javad said.
École Marguerite-De Lajemmerais principal Alain Guillemette defended his school's hijabs, saying they conformed to the school's uniforms in colour and fabric.
"It's from the point of view of uniformity that this was put in place," he explained.
Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said he was surprised by the school's actions in such a volatile atmosphere, but found it encouraging. "I think it's a normalization of wearing the hijab by having the institution offer it," he said.
That very idea of normalization is what worries Louise Mailloux, spokesperson for the Citizen Collective for Equality and Secularism, which believes the hijab is inherently a symbol of inequality, especially where women are pressured to wear it.
"A secular school must be neutral," Mailloux argued.